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In his latest column, Kevin Chsters offers up some of the lessons he has learned these last six months from his 360° view across the industry.

Exactly six months ago, on 23 March, we were all immediately, involuntarily and violently yanked out of everything that we considered to be ‘normal‘. Things like going to the office, a pint with a mate, getting the train, picking up a Starbucks or any other one of the thousands of simple, everyday actions we all took 100% for granted were gone overnight.

We hear a lot now about the ‘new normal‘. Nothing about what happened, or is happening right now, is normal. It’s far from normal as it’s possible to be – even if most of us are slowly returning to the office. This is a new abnormal, at best.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Covid-19 has really hit our industry hard, regardless of what part of the industry you are in. Data released by Warc in June predicted a massive 17% drop on 2020 ad spend. No medium was immune. TV was forecast to be down 20% and cinema was predictably predicted to be hit the hardest at 33% down. Radio, TV and Direct Mail would be hit almost as hard, with annual spends due to drop by up to 20% too. Even the double-digit darlings of recent times – search and digital display – were forecasted to drop by 12%.

The actual impact has been as bad, and in some cases worse, in the immediate term according to recent data. Updated figures from Neilsen showed that UK media spend fell by £1bn y-o-y over the summer, as the government and Public Health England became the biggest advertisers. UK advertising spend on traditional media halved between 23 March and 30 June. Some of the traditional big spenders virtually stopped advertising altogether (McDonald’s spend fell by 97% between March and June). Outdoor spend fell by 80% and predictably hardest hit was cinema with a 100% decline.

None of us, however, need Neilsen or any other forecaster to tell us that times have been (and are) hard. I don’t think there is a single person reading this who hasn’t been seriously impacted by the consequences of the virus on our industry. That goes as much for clients as for agencies and many chief marketer friends of mine have lost their jobs in the last six months. Everyone still in a job and keeping on keeping on deserves a big pat of the back.

Some industries have been hit harder than others. Production, PR and experiential seem to have been especially impacted by project cancellations and budget freezes. 66% of experiential agencies have stated they’re making redundancies (and I think the other 34% are lying).  It has been really difficult for everyone out there, personally and professionally.

But I’ve noticed something interesting. If you work in ‘advertising’, you tend to only really know about the impact on your immediate world of, well, advertising. If you live in the media world then you tend to know what Covid-19 has done to media planning and buying. The same goes for PR, or experiential, or UX, or social, or VR, or any other discipline. Each industry tends to be a little fixated on the corner of the field they have chosen to make camp. There‘s a Korean Proverb that says “the frog in the well never sees the ocean” and this is the sector-specific version of the well-dwelling frog.

But it has been different here at Harbour, sitting at the heart of a network of 15 specialist agencies in different sectors. It has given me/us a 360° view of the impact of Covid-19 on the industry in the round. We have been in close contact throughout with our partners in the collective, and it has been fascinating (and sobering) to get the full view of the whole of the marketing services and creative industry.

It has also been lovely to be able to support each other and spend time helping each other in any way we can. We need to get better in this industry as a whole at supporting each other. That was why it was nice to see the ‘Land of the Independents’ collective initiative recently by the media indies.

At Harbour we have, by design, been able to talk to people at every frontier of the creative industries (and clients) to see what the impacts have been and what lessons can be learned by looking at the marketplace as a whole.

So, here are a few things we’ve noticed with a 360° view across the last six months and some of the lessons to learn/apply.

No-one is having a nice time (whatever they tell you)

It’s worth saying this. Yes, some industries have been harder hit than others, but no one is having it easy. It’s really hard out there and everyone is struggling – personally and professionally. Regardless of your little corner of the communications or brand pond, everyone is having to adapt, pivot, retrench (name your cliché). Humans hate uncertainty. We fear the unknown and run from the unfamiliar. These last few months have been a seismic nasty shock. Admitting weakness is a strength. We all need to just look after ourselves a bit. And that goes for good industry behaviour too. I’ve heard a few horror stories about agency behaviour to their staff, and client behaviour towards their agencies. Let’s make sure we show our best sides in a crisis. Be nice. Don’t be a dickhead.

Don’t get caught in the middle

It’s an observation from talking to many people across many specialisms that the very big and the very small agencies seem to be the ones that are best placed to ride out the storm. The big network agencies are suffering but seem large enough to absorb some of the budget impact of Covid. They will take a big hit and will lose a lot of people but it seems that – like a fat bloke getting a punch in the gut – their flab is able to absorb some of the impact. I suspect we’ll see a few more agencies merging together at the bigger groups before it’s over. The small companies (Harbour included) seem to be flexible enough to pivot and adapt. It appears to be the middle-sized agencies with not much to differentiate themselves that are suffering the most. It’s like the business end of a game of musical chairs out there – and there are far too many backsides for spaces right now when it comes to agencies and clients.

Legacy is bad

It goes without saying that the companies with fixed mindsets and fixed ways of working haven’t really fared that well. And it isn’t going to get any easier for them any time soon. These times have shone a light on many former ways of doing things. We’ve all suddenly seen that perhaps the old ways were not the best ways. Suddenly, a lot of clients look at those shiny big offices and think... ’hang on?’ A Zoom screen full of people seems more profligate than a meeting did (what are they all doing?). I think this crisis will accelerate a lot of change in the way we do business and not before time. A smart mate of mine once said “better is different”. So, let’s offer clients a new, different, better way to do things. I’m all for it (obv). I’ve found, over this summer, that a lot of clients are a lot more willing to challenge the way they get their creative answers. I’m especially happy to see that most are now realising pitching is the worst possible way (in every way) to choose your creative partner – about time too.

Get Flexible

The observation from the centre looking across the whole industry is that those companies that are not wedded (either by dogma or design) to rigid systems and processes are doing better. This has given every client I have spoken to a bit of an opportunity to take a look at the way they do things and see if they could be done a bit differently/better. Agencies that are willing to flex and try different ways of working have been better placed to ride out the storm. This was especially true in the first few weeks of lockdown – it paid (often literally) to be willing to be open to all ways of working. As Eisenhower said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Things are not back to normal. Far from it

And I wouldn’t bank on them getting that way any time soon. I think we have to imagine that this is reality for a good while yet and seriously adapt. I think we need to work out the bits that have changed forever and the bits that will slowly start to head back to the ways of before. As ever the answer to the ‘new normal’ will be a mix of both. There is a good bit to this – we were an industry that had got used to be a bit of crap normal. Maybe this will accelerate a lot of better behaviours. Hope so.

Here’s my four simple(r) lessons from the last six months as a business: be different, be interesting, be useful and be nice. So far, being these four things has been good for us.

I do hope, as I’ve said before, that some of the good bits of the last six months are here to stay. All of us being a bit more human. People being a bit more open to change. I hope we get better in every way.

It’s not over. It’s not normal. But we have got through the last six months. Well done everyone.

As Churchill said after the victory at El Alamein: 

“This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”